We see it on Saturday on the road to Rayeville: the wicker love seat, right out there, straddling the center median.
We see it on Saturday on the road to Rayeville: the wicker love seat, right out there, straddling the center median. “Pull over!” Mother’s voice is high-pitched, excited. She is always on the lookout for something for nothing and here is a perfectly good piece of furniture that clearly belongs to no one—hers for the taking.
Daddy sighs and obeys. The car rolls to a stop on the shoulder, fifty yards beyond the gleaming love seat.
“Back up, Tom! We’re too far!”
Daddy regards the Ford logo in the center of the steering wheel for the briefest moment, then carefully moves the gear shift to Reverse, turns, and backs the car until it sits even with the love seat.
Mother is already clambering out of the car when he shifts to Park. The car gives a little jump and she squeaks her alarm. My sister and I look at each other in the back seat. How long will this take? It is stifling hot with no breeze coming in the open windows.
Mother scampers across the two lanes of Route 9; she looks like The Roadrunner with her pale thin legs and khaki Capri pants. Daddy climbs out more slowly, leans against the maroon fender of his lovingly restored 1989 Thunderbird, arms folded across his broad chest, straw fedora pulled low to shield his eyes against the sun. We all watch Mother circle the unlikely median décor. Hands on her hips, she appraises the ornate wicker feet—three on the concrete median, the fourth on the southbound lane—the smooth rounded arms, the red-and-white striped seat cushions perfectly and invitingly in place. Mother will want a good estimate of how much she is saving by getting this for free. Satisfied, she gives the high curved back an affectionate pat and turns her shining face to my father.
“Where would we put it?” he asks, reasonably. He has to repeat the question louder so she can hear him across the road. I know she is reluctant to leave her find, now that it is hers. Reluctant to risk anyone else thinking that perhaps it might be theirs.
“Well, lots of places, Tom! Use your imagination! We could squeeze it into the front room or maybe build a patio out back …”
“I meant, where would we put it to get it home?” he says. “I don’t think it’s gonna fit in the trunk.”
Mother dismisses this with a wave of her hand. “Girls!” she calls. “Come and get these cushions!”
Lacey scrambles out of the back seat and would have raced straight across but Daddy catches her by one sunburned arm. Lacey is only nine: Everything is an adventure to her. I follow as slowly as I can and stand beside Daddy at the edge of the shimmering asphalt. I am fourteen: Everything is a mortification to me.
Mother is fairly hopping at the side of the love seat. “What are you waiting for, Tom?”
“We’re waiting for traffic, Lydia.”
Two, three cars and a tomato-red pickup pass by. I avert my face, although we are thirty miles from home and no one is likely to recognize me. They all slow down—“rubbernecking” as Mother would say—but none of them stop. When Daddy releases her, Lacey streaks across the highway and plops onto the love seat, swinging her feet. “Can I have it in my room?” she asks. Her voice is high-pitched, excited. Like Mother’s.
I walk across with Daddy, my hated garage sale sneakers pinching. Up close, the love seat is amazingly pristine, the wicker intact, the white stripes on the cushions blinding in the late afternoon sun. I see at once that it cannot possibly fit in the car and I wait for Daddy to explain this to Mother so we can get back on the road. It’s still five miles to Rayeville; the ice cream social we’re heading to ends at six o’clock and it’s already after four. We are not members of the church that is holding the social—we aren’t even Methodist— but Mother is particularly fond of free ice cream and has no trouble telling puzzled ministers that we are thinking of joining their church. I usually stay in the car and read, but it’s ninety-two today and I’m thinking I might like some ice cream, too.
Daddy is checking traffic for Lacey to cross back to the car. Her skinny arms clutch a fat striped cushion to her chest; she can barely see over it. He holds the second one out to me. I can’t believe it. “Daddy! There’s no way—” I begin, but he turns away and squats to grip one end of the now empty love seat while Mother hoists the other end with surprising strength for someone so thin. I follow them to the car and shove the cushion into the back seat. Lacey is already seated atop hers, bouncing, trying to bump her head on the ceiling. Her dark hair clings to her dripping face. The car is like a sauna.
In the tangled grass just beyond the gravel shoulder I find a fallen fence post partially shaded by a clump of sumac. Behind the strip of grass and scrub, an Iowa cornfield stretches off to the horizon, tassels nodding gently, leaf blades drooping in the heat. I settle down onto the fence post and pull my knees to my chest, wrapping my arms around my shins. This could take a while. I resign myself to no ice cream.
Daddy has opened the trunk of the car and now sits upon the edge of it, mopping his face and neck with a white handkerchief. He is sixty-two and the heat always gets to him. Daddy is a planner: He always has his hat and a couple of handkerchiefs with him when it’s this hot. He has recently taken early retirement from an insurance company in the city where he helped other people plan their money and their lives. He has done a good job of planning for our family, as well: I know there are college accounts growing for Lacey and me and he’s promised me a car for my sixteenth birthday if I keep my grades up. I want a Mustang.
Mother dances between the open trunk and the love seat now hunkered in the dust. She tips her head this way and that like a bird, looking for a way to cram a big, big object into a small, small space. She is twelve years younger than my father and pretends not to notice the heat, although her faded brown curls are limp and her sleeveless gray blouse—three dollars on clearance at Wal-Mart—has a dark ring under each arm and is stuck to her chest. It is a remarkably good chest on an otherwise bony frame. Mother’s breasts are her finest feature and the only thing I hope to inherit from her. I rest my chin on my knees as she starts pulling everything out of the trunk: a set of jumper cables, an army blanket, a bag of kitty litter from last winter, Lacey’s old roller skates, three bungee cords. Daddy even helps her haul out the spare tire and the jack, although I can see his lips are pressed tightly together.
Thirty minutes later, they have wrestled the love seat into the trunk at an angle; it lies mostly on its back, more than half of it well outside the car. The trunk lid is tied over it with a rope cobbled together out of bungee cords, my favorite leather belt—thirty-seven dollars, purchased with my birthday money—and a couple of tennis shoe laces.
“It’s not gonna stay there,” I tell them from my perch in the grass; I’m pretty sure my dad already knows this.
“Oh, sweetheart,” Mother sighs. “You’re such a negative Nelly.”
Everything they’ve removed from the trunk is piled behind the sumac bush, covered with the army blanket. Mother tells Daddy he can come back for it tomorrow. I want him to protest the sixty-mile round trip for a bag of cat litter and roller skates that don’t fit anyone. I want him to dump the love seat by the side of the road and tell her to get in the car and stop being such a crazy pants. I want him to dump her by the side of the road and drive his daughters off to a life that’s normal.
He does none of these things. He wipes his face again with the grimy handkerchief, settles his hat back on his head. He gazes away to the west for a moment, then turns back and tells me with a look that it’s time to go.
Lacey has fallen asleep in the car. She is slumped across both of the cushions, sweaty and sweet-faced.
“Isn’t she an angel?” Mother says. “Don’t wake her, Lily.”
“Where am I supposed to sit?” I have a very bad feeling about this.
“Well, you know, I’ve been thinking,” says Mother. “It might be a good idea to add a little extra security back there.”
I turn to Daddy, horrified. He hesitates.
“It’s just a few miles to town, baby girl,” he says, not looking at me.
“There’ll be a nice breeze through there,” says Mother, smiling brightly.
“This is probably illegal,” I tell them as I shoehorn myself into the trunk next to the love seat. I brace my feet against the sidewall and push my back against the white wicker. There is no way I will ever allow this thing in my room.
I hear the slam of the car doors and feel the shudder as the engine turns over. Then Daddy is easing the Thunderbird back onto Route 9. The trunk lid bounces ominously. The love seat shifts and I press harder with my feet. There’s a blast from a horn behind us and a car zooms by in the left lane, honking like an angry goose. Daddy is driving well under the speed limit, and I close my eyes and await my fiery and humiliating death. But miraculously no one rams us and it’s only ten minutes until the Thunderbird is turning off the highway at the outskirts of Rayeville.
I see the flashing blue and red lights just before I hear the siren.
Daddy pulls over, the police car right behind. Another car door slams and footsteps crunch on the gravel. I squeeze down as low as I can get and try to be invisible. This is a nightmare.
The Rayeville police officer peers into the trunk, shines his flashlight briefly into my face. He puts a hand on the wicker love seat, gives it an exploratory wiggle. Then he straightens and walks on to where Daddy waits by the open window. I can hear their muffled voices as I ease myself out of the trunk and move to the shadow of a roadside oak tree, taking another shot at disappearing. The policeman is very young and achingly handsome. Of course.
“Problem, Officer?” my dad is saying.
“Well, sir,” says the policeman, looking at Daddy’s driver’s license. “I’d say you’re driving with a load not properly tied down. Looks a might unstable.”
Mother leans across Daddy and beams at the policeman. “It’s our new love seat!” she says. “Isn’t it pretty?”
“Yes, ma’am, but you probably should have had it delivered.”
“You are so right!” Mother exclaims. “But the store wouldn’t deliver it. Can you believe that?”
“Also,” the policeman adds, “it’s illegal to drive with a person in the trunk. Particularly a child.” Unnoticed in my shadowy hideout, I wince. A child.
“It is?” cries Mother, all astonishment. Daddy is gently pushing her back into her seat.
The policeman hesitates. “Well, yes, I’m pretty sure it is,” he says, but he seems less certain.
“I’m very sorry, Officer,” Daddy says. “It was something of an impulse buy. We were unprepared.”
I see Lacey’s head suddenly pop up from her back seat nap. Her pink, freckled arms fly wide in a long wake-up stretch and then she’s bouncing again.
“Are we at the ice cream church? Where’s Lily? Where’s my new bench? Who are you?” as she spots the policeman at her window.
The policeman has his ticket pad out. He smiles at Lacey, but speaks to Daddy. “I’ll give you a warning on the girl in the trunk; looks like no harm done there, but don’t do it again. The furniture hanging out the back I’m gonna have to cite you for. Too dangerous to drive like that, it could fall out and endanger other drivers.”
“It’s a new bench for my room!” Lacey squeals. “We found it in the street!”
His pen pauses above the ticket pad in his hand; the officer looks at my dad inquiringly. This is it, I think. We’re all going to jail because of her.
I can see Mother eagerly leaning forward and Daddy’s right arm holding her back.
“Kids,” says Daddy
The policeman tears off the ticket and hands it to Daddy, who thanks him—thanks him!—and tucks it into his shirt pocket. The policeman helps Daddy unload the love seat from the back of the car and suggests a hardware store in town that rents trailers.
“Best get going, though,” he says. “He closes at six on Saturdays.”
Mother will not, of course, leave her find unattended. Daddy will not leave Mother unattended. Lacey is too young to leave by the side of the road, even in a small rural town where nothing ever happens.
“Lily, you stay and keep your mother company. We’ll be right back.”
“Love to, Daddy,” I say with awful sarcasm.
The Thunderbird pulls away, sending dust swirling in the furnace-hot air. I watch until it turns a corner a half-mile up the road, following the policeman’s directions. When there’s nothing left to watch, I turn back to Mother.
She sits on the love seat, of course. It can’t be very comfortable–the cushions are still in the car–but she wears a look of contentment. She looks up at me and her smile widens. She pats the wicker seat next to her, inviting me to join her.
“I’ll stand,” I say. Mother’s smile fades a little and she looks away from me. I am embarrassed by my petulance, but can’t bring myself to join her right out here where everyone can see us. Right on cue a minivan passes, all heads inside turning to stare at the woman on the love seat. Mother waves. I cringe and retreat to the shadow of the oak tree.
A silence settles upon us. The heat has quieted the birds. The oak leaves hang limp in the thick, still air. It’s early September and some of them are starting to leave green behind, anticipating the cool of autumn. A sigh escapes Mother and she pushes her thin hair back from her face with a hand that trembles a little. I step out into the sunlight.
“Come on, Mother,” I say, trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice and face. “Let’s move this into the shade.”
In the relative cool of the oak tree’s shadow, she resettles herself and looks up at me expectantly. I hesitate, then relent. Who knows how long Daddy might be? Might as well sit.
Mother pats my knee happily and then suddenly points at a tired-looking farmhouse across the road. It sits way back behind an overgrown lawn and has the dispirited air of the abandoned.
“I used to live in a house just like that,” she says. “For a few years. When I was a girl.”
I am startled. Mother has never spoken of her childhood. Of course, I have never asked her about it.
“My grandma and grandpa were farmers?” I ask, curious in spite of my annoyance with her.
“Oh, no,” she replies. “They were gone by then. It was just me and your Uncle Bobby. And the Baxters,” she adds after a moment. “Yes. The Baxters.”
“How old were you?”
“Well, let’s see. Bobby was about your age, so I was … seven. Seven,” she says again.
I wait. She is still smiling, but I can tell she is someplace else.
“So you lived with a farm family when Grandma and Grandpa died?”
She looks up at me, surprised. “They didn’t die,” she says. “Not then, anyway. No, they just wanted to move to California.” She leans forward, looking up the road. “Where is your father?” she says. “All this heat and dust is bad for wicker.”
I am silent. I remember a sunny Saturday two years ago when the temperature had dropped suddenly on a January thaw, glazing the streets with the refrozen snow melt. It had made us forty minutes late retrieving Lacey from a birthday party on the other side of town. The birthday girl’s mother had been easy-going, waving off Daddy’s apologies. Mother had been distraught, scooping Lacey up in her arms like she had just come home from war.
Off to our left the sun is sinking lower in the sky. I check my watch—fifty cents at a church rummage sale—and see that it’s nearly six-thirty already.
Mother is staring up the road towards town, fidgeting in her seat.
“When did they come back for you?” I ask.
She stands, walks a few yards up the way the Thunderbird went.
“I can’t imagine what’s taking him so long,” she says. She looks at me and laughs, but it’s a cracked sound. “They better not have stopped for ice cream without us, right?”
I can’t leave it alone. “When did they come back for you?”
She sits next to me again, gazes off at the farmhouse.
“Well, honey, they didn’t. But to be fair,” she adds quickly, “they never said they would.”
It’s another forty-five minutes and getting close to dark before we hear the familiar thrum of the Thunderbird coming down the street, a trailer with three-foot-high wooden sides clattering along behind it. Daddy makes a U-turn and pulls onto the shoulder just in front of us.
Lacey is leaning out the window in the back seat. “We had a flat tire!” she shrieks happily. I picture the spare tire and jack tucked neatly under an army blanket five miles back. Daddy is barely out of the car when Mother launches herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and tucking her face into the hollow beneath his throat. I can’t hear what she says, but Daddy gives a little laugh and strokes her hair.
“I’ll always come for my girls,” he says matter-of-factly. I stand next to the love seat, watching them, my throat tight. Daddy catches my eye and smiles and seems surprised when I smile back.
We load the love seat into the trailer and secure it with heavy-duty straps. Lacey wants to ride in the trailer with it, but Daddy laughs and tells her he can’t afford another ticket. My eyes ask the question. He leans in close to me with a smile and in a conspiratorial voice says, “Altogether, four hundred and twenty-six dollars. Not counting gas.”
Lacey flings herself into the backseat of the Thunderbird. “This is the best day ever!” she declares.
In a few minutes, she is asleep again, her head against my shoulder, her sticky hand clutching mine. I listen to Mother make happy plans for the love seat, her voice quieter now, more serene, Daddy murmuring his support for each new idea. A three-quarter moon is rising as we swing back onto Route 9, heading south for home.